From Thursday 11th April to Sunday 14th 2013 residents of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford were in for a special treat, the 5th Annual Japanese Film Festival. Organised by Access Cinema and the Japanese Embassy in Ireland the opportunity arose to go and watch some of the best recent Japanese movies on a big screen. For many people, myself included, it was the first time to see Japanese film, including anime, on a big screen.
There was a whole range of movies to choose from, from anime to live action, from comedy to drama. There really was something for everyone. If you are like me and can’t make up your mind, there was a 5 movies for €35 euro deal which helped make the selection easier. So I choose my 5 movies and planned to camp out in fantastic Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield where they were being shown.
I have split the reviews into two parts. This first part will discuss the two anime screenings that I went to. The next part will discuss the live action movies. Please bear in mind that I am a newbie when it comes to anime and Japanese cinema so there will not be a lot of discussion about particular techniques or styles, rather it will focus on how enjoyable the movies were.
Wolf Children (Ōkami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki)
In Japanese with English Subtitles.
Wolf Children was released last year and is directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who you may know as the director of the first two Digimon movies. He also worked on the beautiful sci-fi movies The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars. Wolf Children won the 2013 Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year.
Sometimes the movie is described as being “Twilight-esque” due to the central romance. I could not disagree more with this description. Yes Hana, the main character falls in love with a mysterious young man in university, who it turns out can change into a wolf, but that is as far as the similarities go. She accepts him for who he is and they create a family, adding two children, Yuki and Ame who also have the wolf genes. But tragedy strikes and Hana is forced to fight to keep her family together and to create a life where her children can be themselves. She does not sit around like creepy Bella and Edward though, Hana is bad-ass.
Hana is a wonderful central character. Often mother characters are maligned due to the fact that they are often boxed into the dowdy, homely, submissive role. Hana is the complete opposite. She refurbishes a house from scratch, creates a sustainable vegetable garden, studies hard to achieve independence and finds a dream job as a park warden. Just as important, she instils pride and self-confidence in her children which comes into play later in their story.
The story is wonderfully funny and tragic, it has us in tears on both counts quite a few times. The tragic incident, Hana’s struggles and the later struggles of Ame and Yuki were heartfelt and cutting. But to counter-act this strife was some great moments of humour, I particularly adored Yuki’s reaction to her new mountain home and the actions somewhat helpful villagers.
One of the best things about this movie was the way that the children themselves were portrayed. Their individual personalities were showcased alongside their development, wishes and realisation of their dreams. They spoke, acted and were drawn like children from school to bath time. It was particularly refreshing and there was no “Hollywood” rubbish here.
It was really to see why this movie won the prize for animation. It was stunning. The opening scene of the field full of flowers was immaculate and all the way through the scenes of nature were a joy to watch. I also loved the expressions of the characters and how they portrayed movement. It was natural, fluid and the time flew while we watched.
Its central theme was about choice and choosing who you want to be in your life. It is such an important message and I think Hosoda managed to convey this in an entertaining and subtle yet powerful way. At the end you leave feeling happy for the characters who you could not have failed to care for they were so endearing and charming. At no point did I stop rooting for Hana and her family. Everyone was willing them to suceed.
It has since won the Jury’s choice for Anime at the Film Festival. It was also my favourite movie of the entire festival and everyone should expect it as their Christmas present this year. You will not be disappointed.
From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara)
Dubbed in English.
Is a visit to a Japanese Film festival complete without one picture from Studio Ghibli. Released in 2011 it won the 2012 Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. It is directed by Gorō Miyazaki, the son of Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki. They co-wrote the script which is quite important as initially Gorō avoided anime due to his fear of not living up to his father’s work.
Poppy Hill is set in 1960s Japan in the run up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. For those familiar with Japanese history, it was the time that Japan’s reputation as a technological forward oasis was formed. Out was the old and in came the new, roads, infrastructure, houses and facilities. It was also after this time that people began to question what was lost in this haste, including history, culture and ecological sustainability.
To reflect this, the story centres on an old building that is being used as a clubhouse called “The Latin Quarter”. Some students of the school are trying to save it from demolition as space is needed for a new student centre. Debate rages in the school about modernisation and respect for the past which is mirroring the wider debate in Japanese society.
Alongside this debate the story of a young girl named Umi was told. Umi lived with her grandmother and siblings helping to run the guest house while she was at school. Her father, a ship captain, was killed by a mine in the Korean War and her mother went away to study so she could make a better life for her children. She later meets a young man named Shun and as their relationship develops more issues from the past come to light which may affect their future.
The story is again wonderfully funny and sad all at the same time. Umi speaks about her dad and how she misses him and her mother. She also flies flags everyday sending messages to her dad as she did as a young child to help him find his way home. Her loneliness and grief was heartbreaking and there were a few teary eyes in the cinema.
The movie was hilarious. Small comments that were made by passing students were very witty and creative. The interactions between the clubs in the old building was also fantastic, my particular favourite was the one between the philosophy club vs the chemistry club. There was also a big fist fight at a debate which later turned into a sing-song when the principal of the school dropped by. It was also unintentionally hilarious in places, parts of the story to do with paternity was nothing short of ridiculous, it had the cinema in stitches laughing. Well I assuming it was unintentional as later Shun makes a remark that it was like a “cheap melodrama” so maybe they meant it all along!
Like Hana, in Wolf Children, the movie was full of great, strong female characters. Although there were no girls in the club house they intervene and help to save the building, finding an equality space for female students. Umi worked to support her family, to save the club house and was studying to be a doctor. The guest house was home to a doctor, generous housekeeper and a student/artist, all of who were women. It was great to see and I am sure it would pass the Bechdel test.
Animation-wise it was pure Ghibli. In the introduction to the movie it was said that they made this movie to reminisce about what it was like when Ghibli was a small studio, working on projects that they were passionate about and barely broken even at the box office. The style was done in a way to bring them back to this place, with photo-realistic architecture and portrayal of nature. This includes the beauty and the pollution.
From Up on Poppy Hill they manage to debate these serious issues in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The sad and serious nature of the family story was balanced wonderfully by their sense of humour and optimism. It is a wonderful movie, for all ages, but in particular I would recommend it as an “in” for younger children into the world of anime. If you can get it in Japanese as I think as great as the actors were in the dubbed version, you can’t beat the sound of the original language.
Other available movies were 009 Re:Cyborg, Beserk Arcs 1 & 2, and Mai Mai Miracle.
Part two of this piece can be found here.